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JOEL STEIN [Love Your Work]

LACMA and the art of the deal

November 13, 2005|JOEL STEIN

WHILE everyone was yelling at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for auctioning off its Modigliani painting, Giacometti sculpture and 41 other pieces of art, I was hoping it would sell more of its junk.

That Japanese building is cool, but the museum's permanent collection includes a Salvatore Ferragamo pump and a wall of TVs arranged to look like the American flag.

This was LACMA's biggest housecleaning in 23 years, raising $13 million, and we should be encouraging the museum to sell more often. LACMA rightly felt that two Modigliani paintings were plenty, and figured it could cash in on last year's reevaluation after the big Paris show and the Andy Garcia movie. That man is so fine that if he played Dennis Kozlowski, I'd buy Tyco stock.

LACMA also dumped some "works on paper" by Picasso, Matisse, Degas and Pissarro. "Works on paper" is a big euphemism for drawings. You see drawings at a museum and you feel cheated, like some better museum got the finished piece. It would be like going to Bangkok to see a foreplay show. Drawings belong on a refrigerator.

It's easy to cast shame on a museum for selling stuff from public view. But it's a museum -- it's not like it's going to spend the money on crack. Though I think that would be a lot more interesting than the shoe.

LACMA is going to use the money it scored from rich people to buy stuff from rich people. It's much the same way that our government works. The way to build a really cool museum is to unleash the curator to act like a money manager. If rich people get overexcited about German expressionists, unload them and buy up the underpriced Chagalls. All those Korean textiles the museum never got around to taking out of storage but are costing a fortune for upkeep? Dump 'em and wait for the buses to line up with art lovers itching to see the bright, shiny new Monet.

Sure, if we let curators buy and sell at their whim, they'll make mistakes, as LACMA did when it reacquired a Diego Rivera mural it had sold 20 years earlier, but they'll generally diversify their collection and make sure it stays interesting. People who write about art don't like to think of museums as what they have become -- giant, expensive theaters for entertaining the public that were designed by crumbling the aluminum foil that held Frank Gehry's lunch. For them, it's a big, climate-controlled storage unit that scholars visit (and, if I remember anything about the library stacks in college, have sex in). This backward, ivory-tower attitude is part of why this is the first time in history that there are absolutely no famous artists: no Picasso or Pollack or Warhol. The art world is becoming this tiny world to employ rich people's children. Oddly, also like our government.

But we can't let this tiny community of critics and academics hijack the art world. Because, although we are awash in more pop culture than our parents ever imagined, we long even more than they did for a highbrow experience. LACMA is like a cool sorbet between those sloppy burgers Paris Hilton seems to love.We may have excised the middlebrow culture of PBS and "The Ed Sullivan Show," but people are lining up, with tickets purchased months in advance, to see Van Gogh and Monet.

The curators' responsibility isn't to protect that Modigliani (it's not like the dude who spent $4.9 million on it is going to tape it up in his mildewed furnished basement next to the Carol Alt poster). It's to present shows that enrich us in a sufficiently appealing way that our old Jewish relatives from Fort Lauderdale don't make us see that King Tut exhibit so they can verify with their own eyes that someone did indeed wear even more gold jewelry than they do.


With this column, Joel Stein migrates to the daily Op-Ed pages.

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